So there I was… being mercilessly smashed against a steel fence by a half-ton beast who was in no mood to negotiate with a man in his mid-thirties wearing a Confederate colonel’s uniform. Or, as I like to think of it, just another average day in the life of a junior high history teacher.
It all started when I got a bright idea to help bring the Civil War to life for my eighth grade US history students. Instead of just delivering the same old, boring lecture, I would arm them with three-foot sections of PVC pipe, teach them close order drill techniques, and lead them through a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, which historians say changed the course of the war. After a couple intense prep sessions, I could tell my students were really starting to get into it. Several other classes accepted my invitation to join in, and soon the number of participants in my little adventure ballooned into the hundreds. Yet, I felt the proceedings were lacking that one special element which could really the event memorable. With a bit of serendipity, I finally found two; and they both would be wearing saddles.
Turns out one of my students, Mary Willingham, owned horses and offered to bring a pair of them in with her to add some spice to the proceedings. Without thinking, I immediately told her how awesome that would be and arrangements were quickly set into place. I must admit I was a little nervous about riding into (mock) battle. My only previous experience with horses was at the tender age of ten when a crafty foal used an apple tree branch as a back-scratcher to rid itself of an itch – me. I was brushed off backwards over its hindquarters and landed basically on my face. Then I thought, heck, I was just a little kid then. Now, I was a confident full-grown man and, as such, was able to handle just about anything.
But not this.
The first omen of things to come was when neither the young lady or her steeds showed up on time for the reenactment. Before panic could set in, Mary phoned the school to let me know she would be late because of some unexplained behavior on the part of the animals. She chalked it up to bears in the area and assured me she would arrive soon. Hoping everything would turn out okay, I did a quick costume change into the Confederate uniform I had rented the day before. Just as I buttoned up the heavy wool coat and placed a kepi on my head, Mary arrived with two fine looking horses. Like I say, I am no equestrian expert; but even I could see that there was something off in their behavior. They both seemed very unsettled, and it wasn’t until one of the biology teachers walked by and whispered in my ear that I realized the cause of the skittish behavior. In retrospect, I wish it had been a bear because a bear I could reason with. Oh, no. What my student had brought me instead was a stallion and a mare… and the mare was in heat.
The biology teacher did give me some advice over her shoulder as she giggled her way back to class. “Make sure to keep them separated.” Easier said than done since junior high campuses rarely come with stables or corrals. Thinking quickly, I had Mary lock the mare in the fenced-off tennis court while I took the stallion across the quad and tied it to the only thing I could find, a metal frame covered with chain-link used as a backstop for PE softball games. I tried calming down him down with kind words and pats on the neck, and this worked out okay for awhile. At least, it did until the garbage truck showed up.
Evidently, mares in heat don’t particularly cotton to loud, sudden noises from behind them. In this case, when the garbage truck began operating, she freaked out, started wildly running around the tennis court, fell down, got up, and began to whinny at the top of her over-sized lungs. This only served to re-ignite the passion of the stallion who started dragging the backstop, and me, across the campus towards the intended target of his affections. Thinking that only a show of bravado would help me gain control the situation, I used my best teacher voice to order this animal to, “Stop, right NOW!”
And that’s when he started using his body to knock me up against the chain link fence. Repeatedly.
Every one of my ensuing feeble commands was punctuated by the ringing of steel as I was crushed again and again. “WHOA!!” Clang! “Halt!” Bawang! “please.” Chi-ang! I managed to somehow hang onto the reins while being pummeled relentlessly by this thousand pound container of inflamed passion. When his tactic of body-slamming failed to dislodge me from the straps, he went to ‘Plan B,’ which was basically ‘Plan A’ with the added twist of now kicking at me with his forelegs. The sound of tearing wool and a shooting pain up the lower half of my right leg informed me of his immediate success. Looking down at my now shredded costume and calf muscle, I quickly chose discretion over valor, dropped the reins, and rolled away in the dirt. The last I saw of the horse was him merrily dragging away the backstop to what I’m sure he hoped would be a quiet romantic rendezvous. Turns out his luck was no better than mine that day. The student’s father had arrived by this point and, being a man who knew something about farm animals, quickly got both animals back under control. All’s well that ends well, right? Wrong. I still had a reenactment to run that I was now late for.
Instead of commanding my men from astride a mighty steed, I managed to rally the troops while on (one) foot. Any kid who noticed the blood oozing down my leg must have chalked it up to very realistic stage make-up. We went through our drilling maneuvers, had a snack of hardtack, and fought the battle over again with the same result: the Confederacy lost and the union was saved. The feedback from those involved was very positive, and I felt the kids learned a lesson that would stick with them for a long time. In fact, so did I. It’s often said, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” and I agree because I’ve got a scar to this day that says the other end is what you really have to watch out for.